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‘Natural’ Means Practically Nothing When It Comes to Food

How processed foods like Cheetos and antibiotic-filled meat can still be labeled “natural” on the supermarket shelf

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Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

A judge in Washington, D.C. Superior court has dismissed a lawsuit against meat conglomerate Hormel that once again highlights the murky nature of products labeled as “natural” — a term that’s become more popular in recent years in grocery aisles. The lawsuit filed by the animal rights group Animal Legal Defense Fund claimed that Hormel “engaged in potentially misleading advertising of animal products,” arguing that the Hormel Natural Choice label lead consumers to believe its meat products do not contain antibiotics or hormones when, in fact, they do. While the ruling sided with Hormel, the lawsuit did reveal that the company’s Hormel Natural Choice label uses the same hormone- and antibiotic-treated animals used to produce other conventional Hormel meat products like Spam.

The FDA has no guidelines for use of the term “natural” and only lightly enforces the term “all-natural,” according to Vox. Meanwhile, the USDA defines “natural” as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color” that “is only minimally processed,” meaning it’s “processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” That means animals raised with hormones and antibiotics can still fall under the “natural” category, as can Cheetos, lemon-flavored Oreos, and Skippy peanut butter. The Hormel Natural Choice packaging is within the legal bounds outlined by the USDA — it defines “natural” as “minimally processed” with “no artificial ingredients.” But the ALDF plans to appeal the ruling.

Although the lawsuit wasn’t successful, the plaintiffs showed that Hormel employees acknowledged there isn’t a meaningful difference between Hormel Natural Choice meats and other conventional Hormel options. Attorneys for the ALDF cited an email from a Hormel marketing director noting “the fact that many consumer[s] assume Natural=RWOA [Raised Without Antibiotics].” Another employee, Corwyn Bollum, stated in a deposition that there is “no separate manner in which the pigs raised for Hormel Natural Choice products are versus any other of Hormel’s products, so Spam or any other lunch meat or bacon product.” Hormel did not deny the statement in its response to the lawsuit.

There’s plenty of outside evidence that big food companies profit off consumer confusion. Consumer Reports found that 73 percent of respondents sought out products with the “natural” label — a greater percentage than those who purchased more stringently labeled “organic” foods (another sector that food conglomerates are edging their way into). A separate survey from Technomic found that one in five consumers are willing to pay more for “natural” and “organic” labeled products — in essence, paying more money for a vaguely defined word.

Natural products aren’t the only labels to go virtually unregulated. Terms like “lightly sweetened,” “made with real...,” and “multigrain” are also more a branding strategy than a substantive label, forcing shoppers to stay vigilant in the grocery aisles if they’re truly looking for a healthy food.

Hormel Lawsuit Reveals What ‘Natural’ Meat Really Means [Bloomberg]
Animal Legal Defense Fund Vs. Hormel Foods Corporation [Public Justice]
“All-Natural” Labels on Food Are Meaningless. Let’s Get Rid of Them. [Vox]
What Do Those ‘Healthy’ Food Labels Really Mean? [E]
Consumers Continue Reaching for ‘Natural’ Foods, Despite Not Knowing What ‘Natural’ Means [E]